- The untold story, by professor who attempted to overthrow the late Head of State
By Olakunle Olafioye
TWO weeks ago, Nigeria commemorated 17 years of uninterrupted civil rule with tributes to many heroes of democracy both known and the unsung. Perhaps one of the unsung heroes of Nigerian civil rule who has failed to get commensurate acknowledgement for his bravery and heroism during the military era is Professor Adesegun Banjo. Adebanjo, a medical doctor waged an armed struggle against then military regime of the late Sani Abacha, leading to his detention in Republic of Benin. Upon his release, Banjo became a beautiful bride courted by powerful interests outside the country, a development which placed him in a vantage position to decide fates of both victor and villain of June 12 struggle. In this interview with Sunday Sun, Prof Banjo speaks on the secret negotiation which sealed in the fate of the trio of the late Chief MKO Abiola, acclaimed winner of June 12 1993 election; General Sani Abacha and former president Olusegun Obasanjo.
If I heard you right during our conversation earlier, you said you were the one who pressured the western powers to remove Abacha. How did you achieve this?
I won’t use the word ‘pressured’. If you want to get something from somebody, you look for what is most dear to that person; what that person guards jealously and threaten that thing. It is most likely the person surrenders that thing to you. After I was released from prison, I started mobilizing again, I was detained for 14 years, not in Nigeria. Although our incarceration was done illegally because we were not found guilty. Soglo, (the then president of Benin Republic) just detained us like hostages, he was milking Abacha. In fact, it was alleged that he got up to one hundred million dollars from Abacha. In the late 50s and early 60s when the Asian and African countries were clamouring for independence, the Western nations were determined to hold on to their old colonies, these are mainly Asian and African countries, as raw materials producers and receptors of finished goods. This means they would not allow them to develop. So they handed over power to the most undeveloped people in the countries. So they handed over power to the Hausa. They handed over power to people on the lowest rung of ladder of development because they wanted their products to have market and they wanted to receive raw materials.
So, the clue to getting at them was their economy. After Abacha hunted me and couldn’t get me from prison, he held a meeting at Aso Rock, where he said he wanted to discuss with me since he couldn’t get his assassins to kill me. Unknown to him, one of his high ranking intelligence officer was a member of our organization. So, after their security meetings, he would call me on the phone and tell me what Abacha was planning. Abacha said since his assassins couldn’t get me, that he would like to talk to me. So, I scheduled a meeting in Ghana and requested that he send two emissaries. One of them was our agent. The other fellow was the real emissary. Our agent only accompanied him. So they came to Ghana for the meeting. After preliminary discussion, I pulled him aside and asked him what Abacha wanted from me. He told me that Abacha wanted me to call off the armed struggle against him. He said Abacha was offering me fifty thousand dollars. He informed me that I was the only one left, that everybody, including NADECO chieftains had all taken money. That I knew. He said even the obas had all gotten money. But when I came back, I learnt that Awujale and one other Oba refused to collect the money. So, he said I was the only one left but I told him there was no deal.
He asked me if I knew how much he was talking about, fifty thousand dollars not naira but I insisted that there was still no deal. Then he said something that annoyed me, he said, “are you not a Yoruba man. I answered him that not only Yoruba people can be bought. He looked at me for a while and said ‘well everybody has a price.’ He said he had the authority and power to offer me far more than that amount and asked me to give him my foreign bank account details, promising that the money would get to my account between three and five days. He said after I confirmed the payment that I should call a press conference and renounce armed struggle for dialogue. That’s a lot of money. To be honest with you, I was tempted. Then I thought about it. Suppose I got the money and I didn’t live for more than a week after? Isn’t that possible? But that wasn’t the only reason why I rejected it. I just told him that I couldn’t take it, that I am priceless. At that time, I wasn’t really fighting for the country, I was only fighting injustice after I had seen what happened, I insisted there was no deal and I told him to tell Abacha that we would restart hostility in less than two months. But just about six weeks later, we were in a hotel in Ghana and two white men and a black man came in. I thought they were assassins, so we carried things to defend ourselves but they raised their hands and said they came in peace. They said Dr Banjo, we have been looking for you in the last two months. That corresponds to the time Abacha came.
They said they represented foreign interests in Nigeria. I asked them what they wanted and they said they did not want armed struggle because it could lead to revolution or civil war, which would affect their economy. They had earlier promised to keep their word on whatever resolution we agree on. They knew that civil war would put their interest in jeopardy. They said they would remove Abacha. I said you can remove Abacha and they said yes. Then I told them that was not enough. I told them that power must come to the South, that Hausa had ruled us for 38 years, and had messed up the country and that they were not capable of ruling under a democratic system that would support the development of a new nation. I said power must come to the South and particularly to the Yorubas. They looked at each other and laughed. They said ok, power would come to the Yoruba. I told them they could remove Abacha and cause change of power base.
The Hausa/ Fulani had always claimed they were born to rule. I remember a conference I attended in Philadelphia and one of them rose and said they were born to rule; that to hand over power to the South would amount to committing suicide. I told them to get Abiola released because he had the people’s mandate. But they said Abiola was not acceptable to them. I asked them why ‘because you made him chairman of ITT for Africa, he is your man.’ But they said he was no longer acceptable to them. I later knew why it was so. I didn’t know the reason that time. So they said as a matter of fact that they had somebody in mind. They said they would put a Yoruba man, an ex-general as president. Then I remembered what a high commissioner said at an embassy about a few days earlier. He said they would remove Abacha when the time comes and do what they did in Ghana in Nigeria. They had put Rawlings in power in Ghana, an ex-military man.
So, when they said that, I told them that they were referring to Obasanjo. And I said that Obasanjo was in prison, they said that wasn’t a big deal. Are you not surprised that they removed Abacha, caused a shift of power and brought Obasanjo, an ex-prisoner to power? Do you think we have true independence? We have no independence. Maybe now with Buhari on the seat, and starting from Jonathan, who told them off and Buhari who is now asking them to bring our money in their accounts, perhaps we are now getting true independence. I hope Buhari survives because he is doing what nobody has tried to do. So they asked if we had a deal, I won’t tell you what I told them.
You said you later realized why they didn’t want Abiola. What was their reason?
Abiola, before he had become president was going round, telling them that they were going to pay for reparation for slavery to Africa. He should have waited to become the president before he could say such a thing. What he wanted to do was good but he should have got the power first. That was why they stood on his way.
In a recent interview, you hinged your reason for taking up arms against Abacha’s government on the seeming marginalization of the Yoruba. Is it then safe to say the current clamour by a section of the country for secession is justifiable?
Not quite. In 1962, when Awolowo and those 32 people were arrested, I was living in Ibadan, so I was exposed to the politics of the time. That made me to realize that the Hausa have an agenda to crush the Yoruba. So, I knew that one day we might have to fight them. The thing that spurred me more was that one day in Yaba area of Lagos, I saw some people protesting after the annulment of the June 12, 1993 election, they were throwing stones at the police and soldiers and the soldiers opened fire on them. I saw people fall and the soldiers were laughing. That was the time I made up my mind to fight Abacha.
But the issue of marginalization had been there. Part of the things that also spurred me was the situation in our universities then. In our universities then, the heads of state, who were mostly Hausa/ Fulani, were the ones appointing vice-chancellors and they were not appointing academicians. When you compromise the post of vice chancellors with mediocre appointees, there would be problems. Before it was the universities that appointed their vice chancellors not heads of state.
Are you saying the call for the break-up by a section of the country is uncalled for?
I believe that the bigger a nation is the more powerful the nation is. Soviet Union was very powerful so is America but look at the small countries of Europe, they rarely have power. Look at India, Look at China. So I don’t believe Nigeria should split. We must stay together but we must go back to the federal system, our original, true federal constitution.
Are you in support of the call for the restructuring of the country?
Of course, yes. We must restructure; we must go back to our regions, which was what we agreed on at independence. Let each region manage its resources and pay tax to the federal. Each region should make its own money. That is my belief. I don’t believe we should split. Nigeria should remain one but in a truly federal system.
How do you feel, after all your struggle and you realize that nobody even remembers your contributions?
Obasanjo was the chief beneficiary of our struggle, shouldn’t he ask for us? I tried to see him; I went to Abuja to see him. Col. Aare who was then the head of SSS said he wanted to see me so I went to Abuja but after five days of wait, I had to come back. The man had changed his mind and did not want to see me. They put us in a hotel but every morning when we made attempts to see him, Col. Aare would say something else had happened that we would not be able to see him. He was supposed to be looking for us- the people who made the sacrifice that brought him to power. We shouldn’t be looking for him. If I had said no to Obasanjo’s choice, he wouldn’t have become the president.
The first thing Obasanjo did when he took over was to put me under house arrest in this house. Bola Ige communicated that to me but he said I shouldn’t make noise about it. And I think it was probably because Obasanjo did not feel secure at that time. I am not saying that was the reason but I think he didn’t feel secure. I was in this house for six months. It was after six months that he sent for me before he probably changed his mind about it.
After that I tried to get my job back at the (Obafemi Awolowo University), Ife. I never actually resigned or retired. In 1989 or so, I went on sabbatical and just at the end of my leave; I decided to do a course in Molecular Biology. So, I wrote Ife that I wanted to do the course but they didn’t reply. So I wrote again. The last letter was a letter of resignation, which the then VC said was not acceptable. So I went back and he said go and retire. Then I wrote a letter of retirement but he didn’t accept it. Then I did the course. In 1995, I was arrested on October 18, they discovered the arms. I made a mistake I should never have shown up to claim responsibility; I should have sent some of my men. In guerrilla warfare, a strategic leader must never allow himself to be arrested. It was when I was in detention that Ife wrote that I should attend a meeting with the council, they pretended not to know. So when I came back in 2000, I saw Professor Makanjuola who was the vice chancellor. I told him I wanted to come back but he said no way. I told him that he was not the council and he told me that they invited me in 1996 and I replied him that I was in detention then. Then he said something that shocked me. He said, “you are a medical doctor and a medical anatomist. He said medical anatomists are rare that I should get a job somewhere else. I told him it wasn’t for him to decide that I was employed by the council. I told him to inform me when the council would want me to come back but I never received such invitation. I have had no income for 25 years.
Abacha killed us, the Yoruba, that is why I am disappointed in those who are parading themselves as leaders now, particularly Obasanjo.
What is your assessment of democracy in Nigeria since 1999? Are we getting it right?
We have no democracy, what we have is the rule of a cabal who constituted themselves into a political party. What we have is ‘demoncracy’ – a rule by a cabal for the people. One of the hallmarks of democracy is independent candidacy but they do not allow that. Only a few people will gather themselves into a political party and if you want to join they will tell you, no, you can’t, just like they did to me when I wanted to run for governorship of this state (Ogun) on the platform of the defunct Alliance of Democracy, AD. Until we have true democracy, wrong people will continue to get to power. When the people who rule are dummies, all they do is to loot the nation and we don’t have deterrent. If we have deterrent like the Chinese, they won’t be doing it. If you steal government’s money in China you will be executed.
Looking back at your struggle over the years, do you have any regrets?
Well, to some extent. The regret I have is that the people who get to power after our struggle do not care about the nation. So, our struggle was just in vain. I don’t regret doing it but I regret the outcome. Look, for an instance now, do you know that I have cancer? I have had cancer for 10 years. It will cost me about $150, 000 to go abroad and get cured but I don’t have that money now. I am just barely managing to feed now. I have not earned any income since 1989.
If you had the opportunity to do it again, would you repeat it, if you found yourself in a similar situation?
If the circumstances were the same as it was in Abacha’s time, but I’ve learnt to modify it, that I didn’t know then. I succeeded in causing the removal of Abacha, which was the foremost thing. What we did not plan for seriously was the aftermath of the struggle. I should have fought to get power, to have control. We fought to get rid of Abacha. Abacha went and left a vaccum, I should not have allowed Obasanjo to take over; I should have refused.
Would you have offered yourself to rule the country?
Yes! As I said that I made a mistake, I would have told them that we- our organization, would rule. I should have told them to support us to rule the country instead of picking Obasanjo.
Just like in your case, your late brother, Col. Victor Banjo, also had problems with the military in the 60s (cuts in)…
Col. Banjo was never part of January 1966 coup. There was a coup in 1964 during the struggle between Zik and Tafawa Balewa. This was a coup by senior military officers. My brothe r was the organizer of that coup. All the senior officers were part of it. But the coordination was given to my brother. Six hours before the coup, which was scheduled for 4.00 am, all the soldiers were ready to move into their assigned positions to take over the country. Then the most senior army officer, Brigadier Adamolekun, who was a Yoruba man backed out at the last moment. So, my brother had to run around telling people at various stations all over the country that it was over. But the 1966 coup, Col. Banjo was never part of it. Although at the end of the coup he was invited to take over as head of state because he was educated and was very brilliant, but he refused. He told them to accept Ironsi who was then the head of the Army. The Army was supposed to be there for six months and call for election. According to what they said, the coup was not tribally planned but it was tribally executed. There would have been a fight but it was Col. Banjo who persuaded them to accept Ironsi, since he was only going to be there for six months but Ironsi and his henchmen had a different agenda. It was Ironsi who abolished the federation. That was part of their sinister plans.
Then a day after Ironsi took over they- Ironsi and some Igbo officers, planned to kill my brother. He was the one that was supposed to go to West as the governor but he recommended Fajuyi while he stayed at the centre. He was the next to Ironsi. But Ironsi, Lt Kurubo and Major Awula planned to kill him in Ironsi’s ante-room but the presence of a white woman secretary at the place prevented them so they took him and covered his face with hood to Ikeja Cantonment where they planned to execute him. But the officers and soldiers at the Cantonment insisted to see the person they covered with hood. They removed the hood and saw that it was my brother.
That was how he escaped being executed. Ironsi denied that he didn’t know anything about the plot. Then they detained my brother in Lagos together with all the coup planners before they transferred him to Ikot Ekpene. He was detained in Ikot Ekpene.
When Ojukwu declared Biafra, he released my brother and all those who were detained. My brother wanted to come to the West, Gowon who was the head of state then told him that he could only come as a prisoner. They were afraid of him so they didn’t want him back. Col. Banjo decided to stay and when the war broke out, Ojukwu invited him together with Adegboyega to come and help them. He saw how the Hausa were brutalizing the Igbos. The Igbo did not have a strong army. Ojukwu was stupid to have declared secession without a well equipped army to defend his people. So, Col. Banjo agreed to help him to stop the Nigerian army which was dominated by Hausa. My brother agreed and asked that in return for his support for Biafra, Ojukwu would give him soldiers to help liberate the West. Immediately after Ojukwu declared secession, Awolowo announced that if the Ibo should go, the West would also go.
So the Hausa/Fulani decided to occupy the West, they brought thousands of Niger people to occupy Yorubaland. After they had stopped the Hausa, Ojukwu gave my brother soldiers to help liberate the West. But before then, Yoruba leaders always had their meetings at nights. My brother-in-law, Professor Ogunsheye was always part of the meeting and was always briefing my brother about the outcomes of their meetings. Some Yoruba leaders had also called my brother to come and liberate the Yoruba. But by the time my brother got to Ore, they had all gone into hiding and he couldn’t reach them again. Awolowo had been in jail then. Gowon was planning to run away. It was Wole Soyinka and two other people who rushed to my brother and urged him to come back and liberate Yoruba land. My brother and the troops were in Ore for almost a week but they could not move until the bridges were cut on our side.
In no time, Gowon released Awolowo who had been in jail and Awolowo went on air to say that whoever knew Col. Banjo should tell him not to come to the West because, according to him, the Yoruba had decided to support the government. He said if he came, he would be coming not as a liberator but as an invader and that he was bringing Igbo troops. He said the war between the Hausa and the Igbo- two people who do not love us- would be fought on Yoruba land. So, Col. Banjo stayed away from the West.
That is what Ojukwu termed as betrayal. How can you ask me to go and conquer my people for you? He went back to the East and after he returned the Igbo army he was leading had scattered and Ojukwu asked him to go and re-organize and advance the troops. Col. Banjo shouldn’t have returned to the East. He should have travelled abroad. Ojukwu arrested him because he refused to advance the troops. My brother shouldn’t have returned to the East.
It was widely reported that at the point of execution when the first gunshot was fired at Col Banjo, he shouted, “I am not yet dead.” Should we assume that he was actually referring to the fact that somebody from his family would still carry on with the struggle against injustice or is that blood of activism flowing in the family?
Yes, he said so. He said, “I am not dead yet,” and several bullets were fired at him before he finally died. People have said so, that he transferred the spirit of activism to me. Maybe, I don’t know. But we come from a warlike family, a family that fights injustice. Our grandfather was a general in the Makun war, when the white people came to capture us. My grandfather, from my father side, was one of the leaders in Yoruba army. So, we have been a warlike family, we fight injustice.
What is your advice for the government?
Buhari’s anti-corruption campaign is a beautiful one and he should not back down. We should all support him to succeed because he is at loggerheads with everybody even his own people and I pray that he succeeds. So, he must continue with the anti-corruption campaign, make the punishment stiffer, create a deterrent. We must start to execute people for stealing money because corruption has become a form of madness. Otherwise, in a nation like ours where some people can hardly have their daily bread with N18, 000 and somebody is stealing billions of naira. Look at those who sat and shared over $2 billion. This is pure madness. So, like the Chinese, we must execute corrupt people, putting them in jail is not enough. Then Buhari must also listen to the people to know their wants. We can never develop as it is now. We must go back to our original federation, go back to the regions, go back to parliamentary system of government.